45. In our last installment, we went through the potato salad jokes. But why is potato salad funny? And why does the humor often fall along racial lines? Why do we assume that “white” potato salad is bound to be something “creative” that looks more like this…
…while my potato salad looks like this?
As we saw in the first part, the top photo looks like a good potato dish. Still, I can’t get past the feeling that my potato salad is the real potato salad, and if someone promised me potato salad, and brought the first dish, I’d feel shortchanged, no matter how good it was.
It’s like the difference between a hamburger and a hot dog. Both are conceptually the same thing: meat between a bun, with similar condiments. But if I ordered a hamburger, and was handed a hot dog instead, I’d be disappointed. I’d eat it. And I’d like it. But it just wouldn’t be the same. I was expecting a hamburger.
Expectations. Expectations based on experience and, perhaps, sentimentality. Potato salad just needs to be a certain way, and some other way feels wrong. There’s a sense of ownership here. A certain kind of potato salad is ours, at least enough for us to make jokes about it, and other kinds of potato dishes are yours. And keep yours away from us, please.
So is Potato Salad part of “soul food” cuisine? Is it soul on ice cubes?
If “soul food” is taken in the specific historical sense, as it developed in the 1960s as an expression of black identity and power independent of white society, then potato salad won’t fit the bill. There’s nothing especially “black” about it. It doesn’t have African roots, nor was it invented or developed in the African American community.
Potato salad is a European import. The potatoes themselves are, of course, a New World food. The Spanish hauled them back home, and promptly went about inventing dishes that amounted to potato salad. By 1597, the English botanist, John Gerard, noted that potatoes were exceptionally good mixed with a little wine, oil, vinegar. This modern Italian potato salad, made with chianti, may suggest the evolutionary development:
The Germans, meanwhile, developed warm potato salads that tended to have more bite. They generally used more vinegar, as well as the grainy (and sharper) mustards of the day. Some assume that potato salad was introduced in the United States by German immigrants, so that the hot variety came first. There’s no doubt that many people enjoy German potato salad.
However, early American cookbooks leave the impression that many people preferred the French style. The French developed a cooler, i.e., room temperature, potato salad, made with oil and vinaigrette, and other seasonings.
An 1825 English cookbook, French Domestic Cooking, offers a potato salad recipe calling for “fine herbs, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, adding some beet-root and gherkins cut in slices.” It wouldn’t occur to me to dice up a beet to throw in my potato salad, but the rest of it doesn’t sound too bad. The “Bite from the Past” blog gives a potato salad recipe from c.1885 that uses oil and vinegar, but no eggs. In any case, whether French, German, British, or an American blending, potato salad’s roots are in Europe, not Africa.
Well, so what? We could say the same of macaroni and cheese. So maybe we should expand or adjust our working definition of “soul food.”
However, if “soul food” is taken in a broader sociological sense as a comfort food for African Americans who came north or west during the Great Migration, then potato salad won’t fit that bill either. The kind of American, homestyle potato salad I make is both too northern and too new to qualify as a traditional southern comfort food.
In the first place, potatoes are more of a northern and western food. The leading potato states are Idaho, Washington, and North Dakota. Potatoes thrive in cooler temperatures, which is why they became a replacement crop in Europe during the cereal crop failures brought on by the Little Ice Age. The south, meanwhile, was more tied to an unrelated tuber, the sweet potato.
Idaho potatoes at Sweetbay Supermarket, Wesley Chapel, Florida
Secondly, the ingredients of our homestyle potato salad are too new to be considered “down home.” The exact history of mayonnaise is disputed, but the sauce, as we know it, was formalized by the French in the early 1800s. By the end of the century, mayonnaise had made it to America, and was beginning to be used in elite restaurants as a dressing for potatoes. But that was homemade mayonnaise, i.e., with fresh eggs, so that it had to be used quickly, especially in the days before reliable refrigeration.
Commercial mayonnaise, a safer product with a longer shelf-life, began to appear in the early 1900s. Yellow mustard likewise started becoming popular in the early 1900s, especially with the introduction of French’s served on hot dogs at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
So when did potatoes, mayo and mustard land in the same bowl? In a small cookbook published by industry-leader Hellmann’s in 1922, the seventeen recipes did not include one for potato salad.
I glanced through some of my older cookbooks. In the late 1930s, Eudora Welty gave a recipe for a “wickedly hot potato salad” served with fried catfish at the Hotel Vicksburg. It includes all of the ingredients we’d expect: potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, prepared mustard, plus pickles, pimentos, and more, though the implication is that the mayonnaise was homemade.
But there’s no potato salad recipe in my mom’s 1946 Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that she was given as a newlywed, nor in the 1950 Charleston Receipts. There’s big-batch recipe for serving 46-50 in the 1950 The Sexton Cook Book. There’s also one in Meta Given’s The Modern Family Cook Book that first appeared in 1942, but mine is the 1961 edition.
In other words, it appears that potato salad as we know it is largely a postwar creation. It depends on commercial mayonnaise and yellow mustard, and on the availability of refrigeration. It’s not exactly a “down home” dish. Indeed, in the last few years, “mayonnaise” has become a gentle insult for white people and white culture. Yours truly, for instance, may or may not have used this photo to mock last spring’s Oscar nominees:
Another dimension of “soul food” is that many of the standard dishes are part of festival cuisine, not daily cooking. When the food police start shooting down soul food dishes as unhealthy, it’s always worth reminding them that it was never intended to be eaten every day. If you eat candied yams, every day, drenched in brown sugar and butter, it might well kill you.
In that context, potato salad qualifies as a festival food. It’s certainly a key side dish in backyard cookouts and picnics. In more than a few southern homes, it’s part of the Thanksgiving or Christmas menu. Potato salad gets eaten by crowds, not just the immediate nuclear family, and so all of the things we joked about in the first piece come into play, such as wondering who made it, or debating a bad batch.
It’s in this sense that we might feel justified in saying that even though potato salad came from Europe, and was developed in this country using northern potatoes, and flavored with mayonnaise and mustard created by white northerners, it can still be considered a soul food item, much as macaroni and cheese.
The moral of the story? No matter who you are, the next time there’s a family event that calls for potato salad, don’t be content to run down to Walmart and buy a tub to plop on the table. Learn how to make it right. That’s what I’m doing.
Sugar. That last batch I made needed a spoonful of sugar. Then it was pretty good.